This past Saturday, with the score tied at 65, Abby Henry grabbed a rebound with eight seconds showing on the clock. She dribbled into the lane to draw the defense toward her; then threw the ball to Shelly Martin, who had sprinted to the right wing. Shelly’s three-pointer snuggled into the net just as the buzzer went off. That one shot made everything seem so much better in Maryville at Monday’s practice. The whole emotional atmosphere probably wasn’t as positive in Kirksville, even though they had out-played the Bearcats through much of the game. That one shot forced all that positive and negative emotion.
I asked Shelly after the game if she had ever hit a buzzer beater before. To my surprise, she said it had happened before. As my career in basketball moves into its fifth decade, I have only experienced buzzer beaters, good or bad, probably no more than a dozen times.
Clatonia High School was in its final year of existence during my freshman year. I spent most of my time as a junior varsity player. I got the chance to alternate a varsity uniform with my best friend. In the final month of the season, we were playing in a little cracker-box gym at Cortland, Neb. Just before halftime of the junior varsity game, I received a pass at about half court and cast up a prayer of a shot. To my shock and everyone in attendance, it banked in. It didn’t win the game. I think it put us ahead by 15 at halftime. It didn’t even count as a three-pointer in 1966. However, I got my first feel of that last-second emotion.
Sam, my 10-year old son, has already felt the highs and lows of the last-second shot. Sam is a huge Kansas basketball fan. When Kansas was playing in the national championship game against Memphis in 2008, I allowed Sam to stay up past 11 o’clock to watch the game. Memphis led by seven points going into the final four minutes. Sam buried his head in his pillow and began crying. I told him not to give up, but he didn’t buy it. When Sherron Collins hit the last- second three-pointer to send the game into overtime, Sam was bouncing off the furniture. After the overtime win, I couldn’t get Sam to sleep until way after midnight. Remember, that was a Monday night. It’s a good thing his mother was fast asleep.
Being on the wrong side of a last-second shot can be really devastating. In my third year as the high school coach at Wilber-Clatonia in Nebraska, we faced Lincoln Pius X. We had a very good team, but so did the Thunderbolts. I had two great post players, but both fouled out in the final two minutes as we clung to the lead. With seven seconds remaining, we held a three-point lead and had the ball out-of-bounds. We couldn’t possibly lose, since there was no three-point line in 1983 and Pius was out of timeouts. I called a timeout to set up a little out-of-bounds play and give very specific directions. I told them, “If they steal the pass, just let them score, grab the ball and stand out-of-bounds until the clock runs out.” Then I added, “If you foul, I’ll kill you!” I was very emphatic about the punishment for a foul.
Of course you know what happened. The inbounds pass was stolen. The Pius player put up a two-handed push shot from 35 feet. It had no chance to go in until one our backup players viciously fouled the shooter. The ball shot like a bullet to the basket. It hit the rim twice, bounced high in the air and fell through the net with one second remaining. As you might expect, the player hit the free throw to tie the game. Now remember I told them during the timeout to grab the ball and hold it until the clock ran out? Well, after the free throw to tie the game, another backup player grabbed the ball and almost held it for the full five seconds, waiting for the clock to run out. Unfortunately, the clock was stopped. Predictably, we lost in overtime. The good news is I did not follow through with my promise of killing the fouler. The bad news is I’m still not over that loss, but it did affect my decision making.
The next year, we faced the same situation in the state semifinal game. We had a 25-0 record and led Grant, Nebraska, by three points with five seconds to go. We had the ball out-of-bounds at half court. We can’t lose, right? I called a timeout. I instructed one of my post players, Penny Thompson, to take the ball out-of-bounds and hand it to the Grant player guarding her. I made the other four stand right beside me by the bench. If they had made one move toward the Grant players, I would have physically grabbed them. She flipped the ball to the Grant player guarding her and started jumping up and down as soon as the buzzer sounded.
In my third year at Doane College, we were in the midst of a losing streak where every game was close, but we just couldn’t win. We played Peru State in a gym about as dark as my driveway after sunset. After trailing most of the game, we tied it up with just a few seconds remaining. Peru passed the ball to half court, where we forced a jump ball. Unfortunately, it was Peru’s possession and they called for a timeout. I will never forget what I did during that timeout. A player who had the number “35” was killing us with jump shots. I wrote “35” very big on my clipboard, circled the number and assigned my best defender, Karin Rief, to never leave her during the next two seconds. Just as the inbounds pass was being made, one of my players yelled, “Help me on the screen.” Karin flinched just a second thinking about helping on the screen. Number “35” took the pass and hit a bank shot from 35 feet to win the game.
After the game, a parent of one of our players jumped me on the way out of the gym. This father was a minister and never missed a game. He also never missed a chance to criticize my coaching decisions. He said, “How come you didn’t know who was going to shoot that shot. I did!” I dropped everything in my hands to show him the circled number “35” on my clipboard. He just walked out saying over and over, “I knew who was going to shoot it.” I wondered if he even used it in Sunday’s sermon.
The 2003-04 conference tournament championship season had a couple of last-second shots plays that toyed with our emotions. We were in a battle for the MIAA regular season championship with Washburn and Emporia. Our game against Southwest Baptist featured an All-America guard by the name of Amber Wheeler for the Purple Bearcats. Wheeler hit a tough shot with five seconds left to tie the game. It could have been a heart-breaking loss since we had led almost the entire game. Senior point guard Jane Chalmers came to the rescue. Jane, a native from Australia, forced the ball up court and barely got a running 18-foot shot off in time to beat the final horn. It went in and it put Northwest in a tie for first place with the two Kansas schools.
That really gave us a great boost of emotion until we visited Missouri Southern with two games left in the season. We were stilled tied for first place in the MIAA. The game was really tight the entire way. I had a great defensive player by the name of Erica Hatterman. She had held Southern’s leading scorer to two points going into the last minute of the game. Southern tried to get the ball to this player for the game-winning shot. Erica stole the ball and took one dribble to gain control of the basketball. Unfortunately, it deflected off her foot out-of-bounds. The emotion of the Baptist last-second game then took a dramatic shift. Southern’s leading scorer barely got the ball on the inbounds pass as Erica again almost came up with a steal. She threw up a prayer of a shot. The shot hit the rim a couple of times and fell through at the buzzer. That sent us into a second-place tie with Washburn. Emporia won the regular season by one game because of an oversized Nike shoe on Erica’s right foot. Erica’s still the best defensive player I have ever coached.
There are more memorable last-second disappointments, such as losing in the national semifinal game in 1996, but I want to end on the most unlikely last-second shot I’ve ever been around. Two years ago, we played West Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA regional tournament. West Texas was the top seed and we were playing at their home court in Canyon, Texas. We entered as the eighth seed with only 18 regular season wins, but we had won the MIAA postseason tournament to qualify.
We trailed by 13 at the half, but the game went into overtime. It looked like the 3,000 fans in attendance could celebrate after West Texas hit a 10-foot shot with two seconds remaining. However, junior Meghan Brue was about to get the final touch of the game. April Miller passed the ball to Meghan at about half court. The Aggies had backed off Meghan to double team our post player, Mandi Schumacher, who was under our basket. Meghan fumbled the ball briefly, took one dribble, set her feet and threw up a 40+ foot shot. As the ball was in flight, the horn sounded. The ball hit nothing but net and the 30 Northwest fans in attendance took the chance to celebrate in front of a very hostile Texas crowd.
After the game, a reporter asked Meghan what I considered a very dumb question. He asked, “Have you ever hit another half court shot to win a game?” I’ve coached over 40 years and have only been personally present at two games that were decided by a half-court shot. The first was in the Clatonia High School gym when I was 10 years old. The second was the West Texas game. Meghan, however, had a startling answer. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said, “Yes, I hit a half-court shot when I was a sixth grader to win a game.” I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get it to the rim from the free-throw line when I was a sixth grader. Meghan Brue and Shelly Martin had something in common. Lightning had struck twice with last-second shots for each of them. All I know is the sun finally came out from behind the clouds Sunday morning.